In my recent post, "Did Cisco Cross the Decency Line in China?" I wrote about a suit filed in California against Cisco Systems, alleging that Cisco marketed its technology to Chinese authorities as a means of monitoring the activities of the Falun Gong. Now another suit has been filed, alleging that Cisco supplied the Chinese government with technology and training that enabled it to oppress and imprison political dissidents.
The suit was filed on Monday in U.S. District Court in Maryland on behalf of three Chinese writers who contribute to the websites of Harry Wu, executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation and a Chinese political dissident who spent 19 years in Chinese "laogai," or forced-labor prison camps. I spoke with Dan Ward, the attorney who filed the suit, and he said the two suits are not connected:
To be able to get the level of authority that would satisfy me as someone who doesn't want people to get killed because I filed a lawsuit in their names took months. We've been working on this for months. I applaud and encourage the Falun Gong lawsuit, and the Falun Gong lawsuit has similarities to ours. The rights there are religious rights. The rights that our clients were being oppressed, incarcerated and tortured over are political rights. There could be another case on women's reproductive rights.
Ward seems genuinely passionate about the case, because he sees Cisco as providing the means for China to oppress and torture its citizens:
It's not selling them shackles. They'll make their shackles on their own. It's not selling them an iron maiden. They can make that on their own. This is the means to track and immediately detect the individual who's sitting in an Internet cafe in Beijing and thinks he's got a level of anonymity. But because there's such a great interconnectivity from the Internet police to the street cop, that guy who's two blocks away can be notified within minutes that there's someone sitting in Chair 4 of the Lao Wei Internet Cafe that just posted to China Observer; they can tap him on the shoulder, and he's gone. It's like a quiet Tiananmen to me. It's not crushing people protesting in a square. It's crushing words, bit by bit. Cisco has provided the backbone and provided a great deal of the technology and training that has allowed China to do that.
I contacted Cisco to get its response to the lawsuit, and a spokeswoman directed me to a blog post written on Monday by Mark Chandler, Cisco's general counsel. Here's an excerpt:
Our company has been accused in a pair of lawsuits of contributing to the mistreatment of dissidents in China, based on the assertion that we customize our equipment to participate in tracking of dissidents. The lawsuits are inaccurate and entirely without foundation ... We have never customized our equipment to help the Chinese government-or any government-censor content, track Internet use by individuals or intercept Internet communications. Cisco does not supply equipment to China that is customized in any way to facilitate blocking of access or surveillance of users. Equipment supplied to China is the same equipment we provide worldwide, which includes industry-standard network management capabilities which are the same as those used by public libraries in the U.S. that allow them to block inappropriate content for children. It is the same equipment that service providers and businesses around the world must use to stop viruses or block attempts to disable infrastructure.
Ward said he recognizes that China, as a global economic superpower, cannot be isolated from the world's Internet infrastructure. But, he says, that doesn't mean we should be equipping China with the best tools available:
What China doesn't need is the best and brightest of America providing them with the best and brightest ways to do this, when those tools are being used for nefarious things. Does that mean there should be an embargo? Never gonna happen. Our respective economies are far too interconnected, and we, as Americans, like our $49 iPod too much. Does it mean that those companies whose products are knowingly being used to oppress Chinese dissidents, they should be punished? Yeah, I think so. That, in my opinion, is why God made lawyers. In my perfect world, Cisco shouldn't sell to the Chinese government. But that's not my decision. What I do know is that my clients have some very compelling causes of action against Cisco for knowingly and willfully aiding and abetting the gross human rights violations that the Chinese government imposed on them, and continues to impose on them.
Ward also said he prays for those clients:
I'm worried that we named these individuals, and that [the Chinese] government will do something to them. But they knew what they were getting into-that was made clear to me in no uncertain terms by people that are my intermediaries. So we named them, and we told their stories. We've done what we've done, and hopefully we'll be able to bring about some change. Hopefully we'll be able to, if not change the way Cisco does business, let them realize that it's going to cost them a lot more to do it, financially, socially and politically, and however else we can exert pressure.